A Morris-Prokofiev Collaboration
July 9, 2008; Page D7
Independence was in the air as well as on the calendar for the world premiere on July 4 of Mark Morris's "Romeo & Juliet, on Motifs of Shakespeare." His Prokofiev-inspired, four-act ballet came to the stage of Bard College's Fisher Center innocently independent of some 70 years of history framing the work born in Russia.
What Sergey Prokofiev and his dramatist collaborator Sergey Radlov planned initially for Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet was scuttled in the mid-1930s under the terrible regime of Stalin, ostensibly for its rewriting of Shakespeare to give the stage classic a "happy" ending.
But such upbeat endings were not without precedent in Soviet art. Tchaikovsky's intended, tragic conclusion for "Swan Lake" was readily changed to a lyrical alternative in productions within Soviet Russia. What seems to have rankled Stalin's watchdogs was Prokofiev's temerity in bucking an authority such as Shakespeare and proceeding independently with ideas of his own. As Prokofiev put it, recalling his motivation to rework Shakespeare's tragedy and keep Romeo and Juliet alive: "Living people can dance; the dying cannot."
|The second cast for the title roles in 'Romeo & Juliet,' Maile Okamura and Noah Vinson, fared better than the premiere cast.|
Eventually, in 1940, an approved, reworked Prokofiev score for "Romeo and Juliet," with the title characters meeting tragic ends, was staged by Leonid Lavrovsky for Leningrad's Kirov Ballet. Over the next decades, some 90 choreographic hands inside and outside Russia have had their go at the altered work.
Enter Prokofiev scholar Simon Morrison and his recent discovery of the original score and its plans in a Moscow archive. He chose Mr. Morris to stage the work as originally written and conceived by Prokofiev. The modern-dance choreographer and director of his own company, the Mark Morris Dance Group, has said that he took on the project only because the score was now fresh and thus presented a challenging opportunity to create a vehicle for his own dancers.
Mr. Morris has noted in interviews that the 1930s "Romeo and Juliet" is more "through-composed," meaning that the famously music-minded choreographer found the older four-act score less choppy than the reworked three-act version the composer was forced to accept.
Mr. Morris's production, as shown over the weekend in the cozy confines of the Fisher Center's Sosnoff Theater, is about as intimate and idiosyncratic as many previous versions have been large-scale and sweeping. Allen Moyer's sets are natural-wood-toned in hue and include charming little Renaissance buildings that act as much like furniture as like background architecture. Martin Pakledinaz's costumes are dance-friendly reductions of 14th-century Italianate fashion.
Mr. Morris decidedly avoids ballet's way with applause-getting high points, such as punctuational strokes that use expansively taut, dramatically held poses and acrobatically scaled lifts to cap individual scenes. With his modern-dance stress on gesture -- often colorfully and wittily detailed here with Italian street gesticulation of Mr. Morris's own inventive devising -- and on weighted footwork that paces the narrative action noticeably on the pulse of Prokofiev's rhythms, this "Romeo and Juliet" is more like a pageant and home-spun tapestry than a cinematic, operatic spectacle. The swordplay is all with wooden weapons, lending the artfully reductive nature of Mr. Morris's theatrics a faux-naïf dimension: Think a little of "Peter Pan."
The Mark Morris Dance Group rises happily to the occasion. Almost every subsidiary character is clear and colorful without distorting the "through-line" of the choreography's internal impetus. Joe Bowie's formidable but never bluff Escalus, Samuel Black's amusing but not cutesy Peter, and Lauren Grant's feisty but not vulgar Nurse are just three of the lesser roles that stand out amid the storytelling. The casting of female dancers as the male characters Tybalt and Mercutio, however, is occasionally more puzzling than pointed.
Not all of Prokofiev's original intentions serve the unfolding drama well. The repeated scenes of the festival that frame Romeo and Juliet's arresting wedding scene seem to cry out for trimming. The three gift-presentation dances to celebrate the planned nuptials of Juliet and Paris are show-stopping in a less than desirable sense.
So far, also, the respective title roles -- which fared better in a second cast, with Noah Vinson and Maile Okamura, than with David Leventhal and Rita Donahue in the premiere cast -- fail to claim the full focus of our attention. Mr. Morris introduces his protagonists neatly: Romeo as something of a poetic loner on a Verona street and Juliet as a delicately willful daughter in her father's house. But, while the choreographer's direction of each often shows them consistently outside the social life of their elders, as single-minded teens can tend to be, their specific choreography seems almost offhand at times.
Both characters memorably share a recurring and pretty pose -- the flicking of one leg behind the other as if confidently kicking up their heels. It's essentially, however, not until the elegiac "happy ending" duet that constitutes the newly discovered Act 4 epilogue -- set with a blue sky and glowing stars -- that the couple's choreography sets them truly apart in notable dance terms.
But Mr. Morris's ambitious undertaking seems still to be evolving. When I noted to a company spokesman that much of the music sounded more similar than I expected to the Stalin-approved version, with its attendant heaviness, I was told that there was some disagreement with Leon Botstein, the American Symphony Orchestra conductor and Bard College president, about this, and that Mr. Morris plans to work further to get the score eventually lightened to what he and Mr. Morrison understand to be Prokofiev's intentions.
More work and more independence remain in the stars for Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet." Happy endings rarely come easily.
Mr. Greskovic writes about dance for the Journal.